Redemption and Cynicism in “Mr Smith Goes to Washington”

I found Frank Capra’s film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington fascinating. I was very quickly reminded of Mark Twain in the sense that the portrayal of the senators and the political system is heavily satirized both through characterization and the cinematography. Multiple scenes of Senators making backroom deals are full of quick cuts and montages that emphasize the pace in which these significant decisions that affect millions are made. I think the film succeeds in ways the many contemporary films that attempt to satirize important cultural/political systems fail to do. Specifically, the film does not get bogged down in its own cynicism via the character of Mr, Smith who is consistently genuine and righteous throughout the film unlike most of the other characters. Many contemporary films are just satires or see certain American systems as fundamentally irredeemable.  A severe example of this is the Todd Solondz film Happiness in which the American nuclear family is portrayed as fundamentally corrupt and absurd and irredeemably so. Similar to this, David Lynch films often expose the dark underbelly of American small-towns and institutions, also often without a sense of redemption or hope. I say all of this to emphasize what I think Mr. Smith does successfully.

The film accurately fictionalizes the corruption of Washington, that is enormously topical today, while also acknowledging that these systems can be redeemed by those with strong will, and firm commitment to public good. I would also argue that Clarissa Saunders is the central hero of the film, even though Mr. Smith is the primary vehicle, as the senator trying to “drain the swamp,” in Washington. Clarissa writes the original bill for the Boys Camp, convinces Smith to return to congress and fight for justice, and guides Smith through the process and complex rules of senate hearings in order to initiate the filibuster that allows the corruption of Washington to be exposed. I think too, the film is significantly more progressive than it may seem to modern audiences.  I was initially disappointed that  Mr. Smith’s rhetoric about supporting all American Boys seemed to only apply to white children. However, both in Smith’s speeches and the portrayal of the “boys” including in a few shots a young black boy helping produce the paper that makes Smith’s filibuster work, viewers can see the film makes an attempt to push back against 1950’s racism and anti-blackness. The standard of inclusiveness and social justice is much higher, as it should be, in 2017, but I think the film is still successful for its time in representing young black boys as apart of the America worth preserving and holding on to. A flaw to this is the lack of inclusion of women/girls in this representation of the American spirit, although this is somewhat remedied by the characterization of Clarissa as I mentioned earlier. Overall, for those reasons, I believe the film is better than most contemporary films dealing with satire as the narrative manages to avoid total hopelessness and cynicism while also embodying at least some of the ideal and inclusive practices that a better America would have.

-by Thomas McCarthy

2 thoughts on “Redemption and Cynicism in “Mr Smith Goes to Washington”

  1. I really like how you position Saunders as the hero of this film. I absolutely agree with you! Unlike The General, in which the male hero uses the female as a tool, this film has a female hero with the male as the tool. When Saunders is first introduced, she is in on the verge of quitting her job and leaving Washington due to the corruption of the government and the senator she previously worked for. However, when she meets the naive Jefferson Smith, she finds a figure who can carry out the changes she so badly wants to see in Congress. Smith becomes the public hero whereas Saunders is more of a behind the scenes hero. This is a smart move because women were not largely involved in politics at the time and it is unlikely that a woman would have been able to captivate the country like Smith had done. Saunders as the hero behind the hero also makes this film quite progressive. Women were gaining ground in the workplace; however, there was still the overarching belief of dependency on men. The filmmaker flips this ideology and creates a story where Smith has a dependency on Saunders. The drawback of the film is that Saunders is only able to make political change with a man in front of her.

  2. Though it is natural to think that Mr. Smith would be looked at as the “hero” in this film, I like that you insisted on Clarissa Saunders being the true hero of the film. She seems as if she’s the motive and brains behind all of Mr. Smith’s good ideas and plans. As you stated, Saunders convinces Smith to “return to congress and fight for justice”, that alone could just define one as a hero to me. She’s under credited and over worked so I like how you brought that to our attention that she could be seen as the true hero in this film

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